Monday, June 14, 2010

Write What You See

We don’t discuss writing exercises much here, but I thought I’d throw out a few with this topic.


You are seventeen. You’ve been out with your friends on a school night and had a few beers. On the way home, you took a turn a bit too fast and sideswiped a car down the street. It’s past curfew when you stagger into the house, and your father is waiting.

Stop right there, before a word is spoken.

Can you see the scene? Write it (a couple sentences will do). Show how angry he is. You might be able to do it without mentioning his facial expression. How is he standing? Where are his hands? Is he a man of quiet anger or can you sense building rage that may explode into physical violence? How? What is it that you read in his body language that warns you?

Just as there are method actors who recall emotions from real life to use in their acting, there are method writers who will react physically to that imagined scene. They will feel the tension in their stomachs and a rush of adrenaline as their body goes into fight-or-flight mode, and use it for their characters. They will rarely have to use the actual words fear or anger, because they will have effectively communicated it by showing us the character’s emotions.

From A Small Sphere of Influence by Jay Lygon
Toy Box: Kitchen Sink (Torquere)

Tim cut into the stuffed pork chop on his plate. The flavor of apple wood smoke infused each bite with a hint of sweetness while the rub he’d used gave it a bit of a kick. It was one of Sir’s favorite meals.

The clatter of silverware made Tim flinch.

Sir glared at his fork, which stood upright with its tines in the chop on his plate. His knife had dropped to the floor.

Tim’s gaze met Sir’s for the briefest of seconds before lowering again. Cautiously, he rose from his chair, walked around the table, and picked up the knife. Sir looked away while Tim cut the chop into bite-sized pieces.

If I’ve done my job as a writer, you feel the tension in this scene without having to read a single line of dialog. (If you’re curious - Sir isn’t angry with Tim. He was hit by a car and almost lost use of his hand and leg. He’s depressed and has given up on rehab. Out of desperation, Tim finds creative ways to prod Sir into doing his exercises while maintaining their Master/sub dynamic. It’s actually quite a sweet story. Kinky as hell, but sweet.)


While there’s something hot about a person saying, “I have to fuck you right now,” it’s even sexier when the physical tension has been building prior to that. Showing the desire, not telling it, is the key to turning on your reader. When those words come from a character, they should show a slip of restraint and a clue to how much passion is about to be unleashed.

In erotica, dialog can inadvertently come across as cheesy or trite, so try to keep it to a minimum. There’s nothing worse than a sex scene interrupted by a soliloquy. The flow is interrupted and the reader is pulled out of the spell you’ve cast. Effective communication between your characters, and between you and the reader, is going to come from body language.

I used fear and anger as my first exercise because they are such strong, primal emotions. We’re adept at reading danger signs in body language because our survival depends on it. Sex is also a powerful primal drive, but the signs are subtler, and we’re not always as tuned into them. This miscommunication makes the second exercise harder. If we’re not seeing the signals in real life, how do we convey them in stories? This is where being a method writer helps. Your body remembers what desire feels like and how it tried to show it to a potential lover. Use that.


You’re at a casual party, just hanging out and enjoying life. Someone brings their new roommate. You click with this person. At some point, friendly banter subtly switches to the possibility of sex.


What do you see in this mental picture that tells you there’s a sexual connection?
Is this person touching you occasionally? How about eye contact? How is the sexual message being transmitted to you?

Now write it.


  1. Hi, Kathleen,

    Your post is counter point to mine. I'm concerned with talking; you're interested in what can be conveyed without a word being said.

    I had a notion I'd try your exercise, but I won't have time until later this week. Check back and I'll try to have an answer.


  2. Lisabet - Jen Cross picked this topic. As Ash commented on your wonderful entry, we're going to see a wide range of responses. I can't write a story that's all body language. Well, I guess I could, but as you pointed out, having to speak desires is powerful.

  3. Kathleen,

    Damn! Those are some bloody good exercises. I can seriously see myself making good use of something similar in forthcoming lessons.

    Not that I steal ideas or things. Let's be clear and effective on the communication of that point :-)

    Great post, as always.


  4. Hi Kathleen!

    I'm always looking for good writing exercises. I like that expression "Method writing", which conjures up images of Marlon Brando at a typewriter hollering "Stella!!"



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